Study: Women who smoke are at a tenfold risk for PAD

by Jenny Novac on June 10, 2011

Women who currently smoke or have a history of smoking are at a greater risk for developing peripheral artery disease (PAD), and stopping smoking produces a dramatic reduction in PAD risk, but doesn’t completely eliminate it. The findings are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Monday, and were presented last year at the European Society of Cardiology meeting.

Woman smoking

PAD is caused when fatty deposits build up inside artery walls in the legs and pelvis, blocking normal blood flow. Symptoms include pain, cramping, fatigue or heaviness in the legs and buttocks during activity, as well as sudden or difficult to treat high blood pressure. PAD affects about eight million Americans, according to the American Heart Association, and its more common as people age. Untreated, PAD can block blood flow to other critical organs including the kidneys, heart, and brain. People with PAD are at higher risk for stroke and heart attack.

For women who smoked 15 or more cigarettes per day when the study began, the risk of PAD was ten times higher compared to women who had never smoked. Women who never smoked reported very low incidence of PAD. And while previous smokers showed a reduction in PAD risk, especially over time, the researchers found that those who quit smoking more than 20 years earlier still had a higher risk for PAD compared to women who had never smoked.

While other studies have shown a relationship between smoking and PAD, the authors, which include researchers from University Hospital, Basel Switzerland, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Veterans Affairs Boston Medical Center, say that compared to previous studies, their data “indicate one of the strongest associations for current smoking reported thus far.”

Women filled out health questionnaires twice during the first year of the study, which began in 1993, and then once a year for an average of almost 13 years, according to the study. They were asked whether they had symptoms of PAD or had experienced a procedure to unblock arteries, which would indicate PAD. Researchers confirmed PAD by interviewing participants and reviewing their medical records.

People diagnosed with PAD can make lifestyle and medication changes to slow and even reverse PAD. Stopping smoking will reduce risk for PAD, stroke and heart attack. Eating a healthy, low cholesterol diet is important, because high cholesterol is common with PAD. Regular exercise is one of the most important activities that can eventually decrease symptoms, according to the American Heart Association. Medications can be prescribed to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and to make walking easier.

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